Summerhouse land, p.8
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       Summerhouse Land, p.8
 

           Roderick Gordon

  He hears his mother’s worried tones. She’s saying, ‘Don’t be a darn fool, Sam.’ Her voice is drowned out by the shouts and childish yells that rebound from the tall townhouses bordering the yard.

  Sam has somehow to navigate a path across this scene of bedlam because Big Ed and his cronies invariably hang out in the Annex. That’s what the teachers call it, a small area diagonally opposite from where Sam is right now, and right now it’s almost impossible to see it due to all the bodies in the way. The Annex is one of those places in any school that gains a certain clubbish mystique because of the type of kids that frequent it. During the years of the school’s history the Annex has become the preserve of the sports jocks. So it’s strictly invitation only, Big Ed deciding who’s ‘in’ or ‘out’.

  ‘Here goes,’ Sam inhales. Opening the door further, he places a foot on the rimy tarmac and moves outside.

  For the first dozen steps, he takes it slowly as he passes between some gyrating younger kids. No one takes much notice of him.

  Then the eyes find him.

  As he’s never before been out at break time, it’s inevitable that he attracts attention. It’s fine if they just look. At dropping-off and picking-up times, the younger kids often stop on the spot to gape at Sam, opened-mouthed, as their parents tell them ‘not to be so rude’. But there are no parents or even teachers to keep them in check here.

  Placing one foot in front of the other, Sam feels dizzy, unable to move his head quickly enough to take in all the motion in the yard. A football rockets past him, followed by a Frisbee, which skims rather too close for comfort.

  Big Ed, he reminds himself. He sees the gates to the Annex now and fixes on them, increasing his pace.

  A boy dashes behind Sam, slapping him on the back. Sam turns to see who it is, but the boy has slunk into the crowd.

  It was a mistake to stop.

  A cluster of fourth-formers surround him. ‘Freak alert!’ one of them announces, his face pulled back in a malicious grin, while another makes a grating sound like an alarm going off. Children in packs are as mean as wolves.

  From the circle a boy steps forward, squaring up to Sam. ‘What the heck are you doing here, bobblehead?’ he demands, his hands held aggressively at his sides. He’s pathetically small – the runt of the group – he’s trying to impress his friends.

  Sam knows instinctively that none of them present a real threat. ‘Get out of my way,’ he snaps at the boy, pushing him aside. He can hear their over-excited, mocking laughter as he makes good his escape.

  He’s just reached the midpoint of the yard when another boy swoops in and whips off his wooly hat, racing away with it at great speed. Sam tries to keep track of the thief, but it’s hopeless and he loses him in the crowd.

  His skull is exposed now and he feels even more vulnerable. He makes an effort to pat his hair back in place. It’s at that moment that Sam spies his brother with several of his friends under the basketball hoops at the side of the yard. He and Jesse make eye contact, but then Jesse quickly looks away, although one of his confederates curls his upper lip in a sneer.

  There’s going to be no help from that quarter, but then Sam didn’t expect it. ‘Thanks a bunch, bro,’ he says under his breath, then sets off again.

  Another boy walks in front of him and comes to a sudden stop, blocking his way. Sam recognizes him immediately – it’s Farty Bartlett, one of his brother’s BFs. He’s a portly boy, like a pudding with legs, with a well-earned reputation for bullying. Sam knows he’s going to be a problem, and also that he was only with Jesse a second ago. He’s been sent over here by him to whip things up.

  ‘You smell really bad, Sicko,’ the boy says aggressively.

  ‘That’s rich, Farty,’ Sam hears a familiar voice say. ‘Go play somewhere else.’

  In the blink of an eye, the portly boy is heaved aside by a rescuer.

  Sam smiles with sheer relief. It’s his friend Gareth.

  ‘Are you crazy?’ Gareth asks.

  ‘Hi,’ Sam says.

  ‘You shouldn’t be here. You’ll get hurt.’ Gareth is shaking his head, very slowly. He’s got one of those square-jawed broad faces with very blue eyes and blond hair that he grows long, but the teachers never pick him up on it, as if he’s somehow outside the rules.

  A third former nearly walks into Sam because he’s looking in the wrong direction, but Gareth fends the boy off. ‘See what I mean,’ Gareth says.

  Sam has always thought that if he was given a second chance and could come back as someone else, then it would have to be Gareth. He’s not only incredibly good-looking, but he seems to be popular with everyone, moving from clique to clique with complete ease, and to top it all he’s kind. Genuinely kind.

  ‘Come along,’ Gareth says resolutely, trying to take hold of Sam’s arm to steer him back toward the school building.

  Sam resists. ‘Can’t. Donaldson told me to do something.’

  ‘Who cares? You’re not meant to be out at break. Let’s go find Mr Dawson,’ Gareth suggests. ‘He’ll sort this out.’

  ‘Not enough time for that.’ Sam shivers as, like a premonition, a bitter wind sweeps through the yard. There’s something so much worse about the thought of being injured in the cold. ‘Not enough time,’ Sam repeats in a murmur, his eyes fixed on where he has to go.

  ‘Well … then I’ll come too,’ Gareth says, walking beside Sam and vigilantly checking around him for any impending threats. But he slows after several steps as he realizes where Sam’s heading. ‘Whoa!’ he blurts out. ‘You don’t actually think you’re going in there?’ He tries to take Sam by the arm again, but Sam shakes him off. ‘No way you’re going into the Annex. They’ll tear you apart in there. Listen, let me do whatever you’ve been asked.’

  ‘That won’t wash with Donaldson,’ Sam replies, as they reach the entrance. ‘He’ll only punish you when he finds out.’ A tall boy who’s been loitering by the Annex gates moves forward to intercept them. And he is really tall. He plays prop in the first fifteen.

  ‘Is Begley there?’ Sam asks, trying to look around the tall boy to see inside the Annex. It’s more or less cut off from the main yard by a line of box trees growing behind the rusted iron railings, many of which are broken. And the steps leading down into it are of sandstone with deep impressions in the middle as if over the years legions of sports jocks have trodden that way.

  Gareth sucks in his breath at the mention of Begley’s name. ‘Big Ed? You’ve got to be kidding,’ he whispers. ‘You didn’t think to tell me that’s who Donaldson wants?’

  ‘What’s your beef with Ed?’ the tall boy asks, giving Gareth a sharp look because he heard him using Begley’s unsanctioned nickname. Even Gareth’s charm doesn’t hold much sway with these kids, who regard themselves as a race apart. Masters of the Universe.

  ‘Donaldson sent me to fetch him,’ Sam explains. ‘Can you tell him th—’

  ‘Wait right there,’ the tall boy cuts Sam off. As the boy saunters away, he’s relieved by another two jocks who stand there like sentinels with folded arms.

  ‘Big Ed?’ Gareth hisses urgently into Sam’s ear. ‘Talk about jumping in the deep end. He can get really nasty, you know. You don’t want to tangle with him.’

  ‘Get in here, crudcake!’ someone shouts. It’s Big Ed.

  The two jocks move aside to let Sam through, but as Gareth tries to go with him one of them holds his hand up. ‘Not you. Sorry,’ the boy says.

  ‘Sam …’ Gareth begins, but his friend is already descending the steps.

  The area is around thirty feet square and paved up to the borders. There are rectangular slabs of stone arranged around the perimeter of the flagstones on which Big Ed’s disciples are sitting, although there are many more of the sporty kids standing about the place and chatting with one another in small groups. The blocks of stone give the Annex the feel of a cemetery, as if their uninscribed faces mark the graves of anonymous corpses. Or maybe unsuspecting kids who were sent to fet
ch Big Ed. Sam almost smiles at the thought, but he’s now within several feet of the boy – if you can call him that – himself.

  ‘Oh, dude! If you aren’t the ugliest mutha on this whole doggone planet,’ Big Ed says, as soon as he lifts his eyes from the magazine he’s browsing. He makes a noise like he’s about to be sick, then begins to laugh like a maniac and all the other jocks join in.

  It’s said that Big Ed trains in his father’s home gym for three hours every day, and standing there in front of him Sam can quite easily believe it. Big Ed is simply massive, as tall as the tallest masters, but with a huge chest and arms to boot. People joke that he drags his knuckles along the ground when he walks, but the boy looks like he could be a match even for a gorilla. He also has a fuzz of very dark and very obvious stubble on his top lip – he looks so mature that he wouldn’t be out of place at a university, although the rumor is that he has trouble spelling his own surname.

  Big Ed’s lips curl into a malevolent grin as he looks around his cronies. ‘We got this Elephant Man DVD at home … ’bout this freak called Merrick.’

  ‘I’ve seen that,’ one of the other boys pipes up. It’s Manky Macmillan, another star of the rugby field, but who also has form for stealing from juniors.

  For some reason Sam notices where, back in his father’s day, there used to be a bike shed in the corner of the Annex. But no more, not in these safety-conscious times when no one cycles to school.

  ‘And knock me down with a feather, if Merrick ain’t here,’ Big Ed continues.

  And as for the clichéd cigarette behind the bike sheds that Sam’s father spoke of, that’s long gone too. None of these boys would ever dream of smoking. In fact two of them are sipping from cans of sports electrolyte drinks while another pair in the corner are competing with each other as they do timed press-ups.

  Big Ed angles his head and contorts his mouth, then mimics how Joseph Merrick speaks in the film. ‘I’m not an animal – I’m a man.’

  There’s more uproarious laughter from the others as Big Ed reverts to his usual, guttural voice. He demands, ‘So, you ugly mutant, what are you? Man or animal?’

  In a heartbeat, his grin vanishes and his face becomes cold, brutal. He’s rolled up his magazine and clenches it in his massive hock of a fist like a club.

  Here it comes …

  ‘You gross little creep, what made you the right to come in here?’ Big Ed demands with such vehemence that a fleck of spittle launches from his mouth.

  Made you the right? Made you the right? In a different context Sam would find this funny. How ironic that he, probably the weakest and sickliest pupil in the whole school is face to face with the strongest, but the plank can’t even string a proper sentence together.

  ‘So who sent you?’ Big Ed shouts when Sam doesn’t answer straight away.

  Sam can hear Gareth calling out to him on the other side of the gates.

  ‘Donaldson,’ Sam tries to say but his voice lets him down.

  The jock sitting beside Big Ed is Balls Beddows. He holds his can of drink out, but Big Ed declines it with an impatient shake of the head. He’s smelled weakness and frailty and he can’t stop himself.

  It’s not just what Big Ed’s been saying – Sam can sense the strength of animosity, the sheer hatred, toward him in that place. The law of the pack dictates that a feeble and injured animal, a liability, should be put out of its misery.

  And there’s something so primitive and tribal about the way Big Ed is drumming a rapid rhythm on his open palm with the rolled magazine.

  ‘Er, sorry, Big Ed,’ Sam manages to get out before he’s cut short.

  ‘You are going to pay for that,’ Big Ed threatens through bared teeth. Sam has inadvertently uttered his nickname.

  ‘Um, Donaldson wants to see you,’ Sam adds quickly, his voice trebley with apprehension. ‘About the team.’

  ‘I’m not going anywhere. You never gave me the message. And you’ll be in deep doo-doo for that,’ Big Ed sneers.

  ‘I just have,’ Sam swallows.

  Big Ed shakes his head. ‘Nope, chummy, you didn’t. And just who’s Um Donaldson going to believe, with all these witnesses around?’

  Sam realizes now that all the other jocks have been edging forward, closing in on him. While Big Ed just sits there on his stone throne, like the emperor.

  ‘Um Donaldson’s going to believe his favorite team captain, not you, you no mark.’ Dropping his magazine, Big Ed suddenly holds out both hands, wiggling his fingers rapidly toward himself. With a twisted smile, he yells, ‘To me, son!’

  Afterwards Sam didn’t know what made him to do it – it was as if he could hear his own voice – not just the words penciled in the back of the book.

  He ducks.

  A rugby ball hurtles past where his head should have been. Thrown with full force by Manky who’d maneuvered himself into position behind Sam, it was obviously intended to do him serious harm. It would have, if it had found its target.

  Instead the ball slams into the can of drink resting on Balls Beddows’ knee beside Big Ed, which flips high into the air. And as it performs a somersault, its contents spew out all over Big Ed.

  Sam notices something chalked on the walk of the Annex just behind Big Ed’s throne where the box trees are not so abundant. He would never have spotted it if he hadn’t been crouching to avoid the ball.

  In slightly rain-faded capitals, it says;

  TOLD YOU TO DUCK, DIDN’T I?

  Then, below, in brackets:

  SORRY ABOUT THE NEWS

  But Sam doesn’t have time to reflect on this.

  Big Ed springs to his feet, clothes dripping, face apoplectic and crimson red. The gorilla has just gone ape. ‘OH BOY, YOU ARE DOG MEAT!’ he bawls, cocking a tree-trunk sized arm ready to strike Sam.

  ‘Begley!’ Barging his way through the scrummage of jocks, a master storms across the paved area. ‘Stop that!’ he barks. Gareth is trailing just behind him. ‘Begley! My room, immediately!’ the master orders.

  ‘I found him,’ Gareth tells Sam, out of breath as he indicates their form teacher, Mr Dawson. ‘He was just looking for you with …’ Sam doesn’t hear the rest because of the major drama unfolding there in the Annex; Mr Dawson is standing right in front of Big Ed, who’s showing no sign of backing down.

  ‘I’ve asked you, Begley, to go to my room. Now, go!’ Mr Dawson growls, furiously jabbing a finger in the direction of the school building.

  But Big Ed still doesn’t make a move, still panting with fury, still dripping from the upended can. Despite the master’s intervention, his eyes have never once left Sam.

  ‘Do what I tell you. Go. You have some explaining to do, my boy.’ As Big Ed finally lumbers off with a last snarl at Sam, Mr Dawson addresses the silent jocks. ‘And before any of you leave here, I want your names. If you think you can just stand by and let …’

  Sam doesn’t hear the rest because he’s spotted someone else at the bottom of the steps. He can’t believe it. It’s Mr White, his father.

  ‘Dad!’ Sam exclaims weakly, legs still trembling from the encounter he’s just had.

  Mr White’s face is pale and he’s frowning. ‘What in heavens are you doing here, Sam? You shouldn’t have b—’

  ‘Dad, that’s my overnight bag,’ Sam interrupts, as he spots the tartan holdall his father has with him. ‘Why’ve you got that?’

  Mr White lowers his voice. ‘The hospital called. I’m afraid a second examination of your X-ray from the sinus problem has flagged up something. They want you to go in.’

  ‘For another scan?’

  Mr White is hesitant in his answer. ‘Yes … and some surgery.’

  All this is too much for Sam. He flops down on Big Ed’s vacated throne. ‘Right now?’ he asks, as the implication hits him. ‘You mean emergency surgery?’

  Although Sam doesn’t turn to it again, the words of the message chalked on the wall behind him sound over and over like an echo in his head.

 
SORRY ABOUT THE NEWS

  Chalked words, in his own handwriting.

  The blacksmith pounds on the miller’s door. Although he’s run flat out all the way from town, he doesn’t pause to catch his breath as he breaks the news to his friend. The miller listens as he’s told that Hopkins’ men have managed to apprehend Damaris at the flat stone and she’s being held beside the lake.

  The miller’s wife is in tears as she and her husband rush off with the blacksmith. The miller’s children have been forbidden to follow and they simply stare from the windows.

  The three of them, the miller, his wife and the blacksmith meet other townfolk on the way as they head toward the footbridge over the river, but these other people lower their eyes and don’t say a word. They’re going because they’re driven by a ghoulish fascination to witness this once-in-lifetime event, and because they’re less likely to be singled out as witches themselves if they’re seen there with everyone else. To stay away isn’t a good idea as it might be taken as disapproval of Hopkins’ work.

  Led by the blacksmith, the miller and his wife are in a daze as they pass by the flat stone, on top of which the bundle left for Damaris as bait still remains. The miller runs his hand through the crumbs from the piece of bread that was squashed in the struggle with his daughter only that morning. All the time there’s a steady and increasing flow of townspeople making their way along the riverbank.

  ‘That’s him,’ the blacksmith says, as they hear Hopkins’ raised voice coming from around the bend in the river where a small lake drains into it. Then the three of them arrive at the bank to which Hopkins and his men have taken Damaris.

  It’s a dismal place where only animals go to drink the stale water. The surface of the lake is a miasma of rotting weed during the winter, and a wriggling mass of mosquito larvae during the hotter months.

  ‘No,’ the miller croaks, as he and his wife lay eyes on the ducking stool.

  The crude wooden fulcrum has been set up on the bank and, as the miller and his wife watch, two of Hopkins men pull down on the thick timber beam roped to the apex of the structure. The beam pivots, and Damaris is hoisted from the lake, its algae-clogged waters streaming from her.

 
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